The Diversity Challenge Meets Selma

A recent article on the diversity[1] program at eBay noted that men and women experience the company in different ways.  For example, “a majority of women felt that their male colleagues didn’t understand them very well, though a majority of men felt well understood by the women”.

Relationship experts would not be surprised by this.  It is, as Dr Harriet Lerner expresses it, a well understood phenomenon of relationships between ‘dominant’ and ‘subordinate’ groups (her words): the subordinate groups always have a far greater understanding of the dominant group and their culture[2].

This is one of the reasons why a number of senior women who invest personal time and energy in mentoring mentor both men and women.  It is their contribution to trying to create a greater awareness within the ‘dominant’ group.

This relationship dynamic transcends just gender diversity.  “Blacks know a lot about the rules and roles of white culture and relationships.  Whites do not possess a similar sensitivity to and knowledge about blacks” (Lerner op. cit). 

I support the view of the article that the diversity initiative requires more than a conventional business case, “not because it is irrelevant, but because it can’t generate enough passion and conviction to sustain gender diversity as a priority”.  Passion reflects a deeply held belief in the value of what one is doing.  In an earlier blog (Making room for passion in business) I argued we need more passion at work.

The authors acknowledge that the culture change at eBay has only just begun: the day to day experience of many women is not what it should be.   But they also recognise that the diversity journey encompasses everyone: everyone has biases, many unconscious.  In pursuing cultural change eBay has adopted a philosophy that the program progresses on the basis of ‘meeting everybody where they are at in the journey’. 

As I read President Obama’s powerful speech marking the anniversary of the Selma march I made a number of connections with the issues of diversity in the workplace, perhaps none better than his call to action: 

“All of us are called to possess (their) moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognise as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children”


[1] Michelle Angier & Beth Axelrod: Realizing the power of talented women. McKinsey Quarterly (Sept 2014)

[2] Dr Harriet Lerner: The dance of intimacy